In the morning around the yard, I often see bunnies feeding. Clustered around the brush piles, they pick at old buds, strip bark from the trees and feed on any grass that’s present. Every so often, I’d be awoken early in the morning to the sound of steps outside the cabin. Not long after, the culprit would reveal itself as I watched a hare hop across my ground level window. The number I encountered each morning increased as time went on, a testament to the general trend in the area. Every seventeen years in the Brooks Range, the snowshoe hare population hits a peak. These past few years the population had been building, now exponentially so being about one year away from the high.
I encountered bunnies seemingly everywhere I went. They darted across the road when I was driving, scattered among the willows as I walked by and kept me company around the cabin. One day I made a trip to the outhouse only to find a baby hare trapped in the bottom of the hole. Falling in through one of the narrow gaps of the sides, it now hopped around in excrement, occasionally leaping up in an effort to escape. But the walls were too high. I figured the bunny was as good as dead, there was nothing I could think of that could get him out without me climbing in the hole to retrieve him. I didn’t want to see him die, but I wasn’t going to go to extreme lengths to prevent it from happening. A day passed and the bunny remained alive in the hole. I was struck with an idea that could get him out cleanly. I attached tied a knot on the end of a plastic shopping bag, lowering it down into the hole. With apple slices placed inside the bag as bait, I waited above, hoping he would drop in. At first he was reluctant, but then catching a whiff of the apples he entered the bag and I jerked it up. Both bunny and I had escaped the shitty situation with what we had each hoped for. The bunny had remained alive and I remained clean.
Beginning in the summer, I started tagging along on a graduate research project run by Knut Kielland and Claire Montgomerie from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. They were studying the population cycle and its effects, not just on the hares themselves but throughout the environment. To get an idea of population estimates, they would place thirty or more cage traps in a concentrated area. The trapped hares would be given an ear tag, weighed, have a hind foot measured and if large enough, a blood sample would be taken. This practice led to the capture of hundreds, if not thousands, of snowshoe hares over the course of the summer. The offering of an apple slice, carrot chunk and alf alfa square was irresistible as bunnies of all sizes, shapes and genders made their way into the traps.
In addition to measurements and samples, some of the hares received a radio collar and a smaller amount an additional gps unit. The radio collars helped to determine causes of death. A hare shorn of flesh and fur is indicative of an attack from an aerial predator, whereas a lynx will eat only the meat, leaving intestines and organs intact. Being quite expensive, we undertook great effort to retrieve the gps collars if possible. One collar had us sweating as we stumbled over tussocks and scrambling upward over boulders as we made our way to a high mountain ridge where the collar sat alone among the rocks. Other collars were much easier to retrieve, located in willow thickets on the valley floor or the hares would become recaptured in cages once more.
One of the hares in particular proved to be far more difficult than others in recapturing. Showing no signs of entering one of our dozen strategically placed traps, we were forced to pursue other means. We spent a few hours trying to hunt the bunny down. I carried a shotgun while Claire and Knut tried to corral him in my direction. Each time we’d get close, he’d quickly dart far off under the cover of brush, causing us to begin our search anew.
Claire and Knut left to return to Fairbanks and tasked me with retrieving the collar from this super bunny. I still had faith in catching him in the traps and continued to set them out. After a few days, I pinpointed his location to a low swamp and proceeded to set 13 traps within that confined area. Each time I checked the traps, every one contained a hare. But none of them had what I was looking for, the super bunny. Searching and hunting this specific hare by myself proved to be more of a challenge than I imagined. Out of the twenty hours spent looking, there were only a few instances where I was able to successfully get off a clean shot. None hit my intended target. I didn’t want to kill this bunny who had evaded us for weeks, but his destiny looked bleak. Weeks later, Knut returned and the Hicker family joined us in search of this bunny. With 4 guns among the 6 of us, we fanned out in the forest, forcing the super bunny into a confined area. The sight was one to behold, six adult humans moving through the forest with an arsenal of weapons, not in pursuit of some monster but rather a mammal that weighed about four pounds. Finally, a clear shot presented itself and the bunny dropped dead. After hours upon hours of pursuit, the collar was retrieved with the unfortunate loss of this abnormally intelligent hare.
Here at the beginning of winter, the snowshoe hares remain, camouflaged against the snow with their new white coats of fur. Nestled beneath branches and low growth brush, they huddle in protection from predators both high and low. By winter’s end, the population will have decreased, but thousands and thousands of hares will still be hopping around the region. By the end of next summer, there may as well be millions, with populations of predators like lynx and various birds increasing alongside.
It’s easy to dismiss the snowshoe hare, living in the northern regions. Always present, abundant and visible during high years they seem of little importance. One would much rather see their predator, the lynx, or another large mammal like a moose, bear or wolf. But the hares can be fascinating in their own right, for they affect everything around them. As the population booms, they girdle trees and bushes, killing substantial amounts of vegetation in the region. Their rise in population is what also allows their predators to increase their own. Additionally, the hare’s ability to have 4 sets of leverets (bunny babies) within a span of four months is nothing short of remarkable. As is their ability to change color on time with the seasons, from brown to white and back again, in order to match their background. My knowledge of hares is still in its early stages. I look forward to the population peak and the many experiences and interactions still to come.